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A Visit from Dirk

School is out now in Eek, Alaska, and the staff has departed.

Dirk, a longtime co-worker and friend from Eek, took the slow route home. Along with his dog Katja, he visited Anchorage and Kenai and then traveled north to Delta Junction and across into the Yukon and south to British Columbia. Then he crossed the border into the United States and Washington State.

Dirk Martin and Kyle Pratt with Katja

I made a similar trip down the ALCAN Highway several years ago with my youngest son Robert. If you have an adventurous spirit I recommend it. More than once we had to stop because wildlife, such as moose, bear and buffalo, blocked the road. Dirk is a very adventurous sort and didn’t follow the highway as I did. He weaved his way down several small roads and through tiny Canadian hamlets before returning to the ALCAN.

Dirk took some time to hike, camp and fly fish along the way. We had a soft bed waiting for him when he arrived. Then we did some hiking on my own property. I’m not sure who enjoyed that more, him or Katja.

We had less than a day before Dirk had to head east toward his home, but it was nice to visit with him and catch up on the news from Eek.

Thing Two

Good teachers do many crazy stunts to get students interested in learning.

Our school in Eek, Alaska, is blessed with some fine teachers. Every March in conjunction with the Iditarod dog sled race our school does an Iditaread reading competition. The students get points moving them along the Iditarod trail for each page they read.

This year, in support of Dr. Seuss and National Read Across America Day, two of our teachers, Julia Oschwald and Kayla Ashe, decorated the elementary wing of the school in a Cat in the Hat theme.

One of our better young readers is Kristin, the young lady standing next to the Cat in the Hat. The garment she is wearing looks like a dress, but is actually a qaspeq, a traditional Yup’ik Eskimo hooded garment.  

Dirk Martin and Kyle Pratt

As a teacher and an author, I support just about anything that encourages students to read, even if it makes me look silly. In the picture I’m Thing Two and my colleague, Dirk Martin, is Thing One.

The Trip II

(Part Two)

After removing the freight from the plane loading our luggage was easy and quick.

Just before takeoff the pilot turned in his seat and gave the usual speech about seatbelts and, in case of a crash, where the emergency transponder was located, then he said, “If we get to Bethel and I start circling it’s because the visibility has gone down over the airport.”

At that moment visions of us flying around and around over Bethel, but ultimately returning to Eek darkened the already cloudy day for me. The pilot went on to say, “It has been doing that all day.” However, he seems confident we would land in Bethel.

 I had planned to take video as we bumped down Eek’s icy dirt runway and get a shot of the village as we lifted in the air, but instead I was scraping frost off the inside of the window. When the window was clear I did took the video of frozen tundra which you see here.

The Caravan that you see in the video is much bigger than the Cessna 207s that normally service the village. This is fast luxury flying from the for us.

The weather stayed clear and we were soon on the ground in Bethel. It was now about four in the afternoon of December 21st. As I walked from the plane toward Grant Aviation terminal in Bethel I considered my options. I had no hotel reservation. My travel itinerary had me arriving home, with Santa, late on Christmas Eve. I decided to head over to the Alaska Airline terminal and try and get on the evening flight to Anchorage. I knew that it was very unlikely that I would get a seat, but I saw no reason not to try.

The Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel, consists mostly of a waiting room with three ticket counters, a TSA checkpoint, baggage carousel, and bathrooms around the edges. By modern airport standards its small and drab. The clerk behind the counter shook his head slowly. “Every seat is taken, but I can take your name down in case something opens up.”

I thanked him and sat down with my friends Dirk and Julia in the waiting area. Dirk had missed his flight on Friday, but had managed to get rebook earlier and get a seat on the night flight. Julia was even luckier; she had originally booked herself on the upcoming flight. I sat between them wondering just how long I would be in Bethel.

Three hours later, as I chatted with my friends, a voice came over the waiting area. “Kyle Pratt, please report to the ticket counter.”

I nearly ran.

Going up to the same clerk he said, “I’ve got you a seat on the flight tonight and as he typed my information in he added, “a seat has opened up on the red eye flight to Seattle. Do you want it?”

“Yes!”

For over an hour I relaxed in the glow of knowing I would be home by morning. Then I again heard the crackle of the PA system. “Attention in the terminal, the runway lights here in Bethel are broken, they won’t turn on, and consequently the 9:30 flight to Anchorage has been cancelled.”

(Part Three tomorrow)

The Trip

(Part One)

The trip from Eek was a like a trip across the river Styx.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no roads in the region of Alaska where I work. Travel in winter is by snowmobile, bush plane or dog team. I had chartered a plane for five teachers (including me), the principal, two children and a dog. We planned to fly out of the village on Friday, when school closed for the Christmas holiday, land at Bethel, the regional airport, and go our separate ways. Some would fly out Friday night to Anchorage; others would stay a day or two and then head on. I planned to stay the night and then catch the Saturday Afternoon flight to Anchorage.

However, the village was a strange site on Friday. In the past, Eek has always been a frozen blanket of snow and ice by December, but on Friday the temperature hovered around freezing. Bone chilling water stood on frozen lakes, streams and rivers. Rain mixed with snow and then froze with each dip in temperature. The dirt runway at the edge of the village was an ice rink and the planes couldn’t fly for fear of icing on the wings. We waited, but didn’t go anywhere that day. One teacher missed his flight out of Bethel that night.

My flight was scheduled for 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I awoke Saturday morning around seven. It was still completely dark when I stepped outside and looked around the village. There was no rain and I could see lights at the far end of the village. Those were good signs, but it was windy. At about ten in the morning we had the first hint of sun. It soon became clear that when the wind died down fog rolled in. When the wind picked up it gusted too hard to fly. We talked to several bush airline companies, including one that has a reputation for flying in marginal weather, but soon abandoned all hope of flying out any time soon. As the plane I should have been on boarded in Bethel, I reluctantly phoned Alaska Airlines to reschedule my trip home. The customer service agent was very nice, waived all fees and booked me out of Bethel and gave me the first open seat out of Anchorage—on Christmas Eve. With a sigh I took the new itinerary. At least now I had time for the weather to change.

And change it did, just minutes after the plane that I should have been on departed from Bethel the weather started to clear. Two hours later we got a call from Grant Aviation asking if we were still interested in getting to Bethel.

“Yes!”

Grant had a Cessna 208 turboprop, commonly called a Caravan, coming into Bethel from another village. They would refuel and deice and then fly to Eek for us. Nearly two hours later the phone rang. “The Caravan is fifteen minutes out from Eek,” the woman on the line announced.

We packed last minute items, climbed into the wagon or on the ATV and headed out to the airport. The plane arrived just minutes after we did, but it was full of freight for the village. Before we could board we had to haul the boxes off the plane. Still we were happy to do it, glad to be starting our Christmas break. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking the hardest part would soon be over.

(Part two tomorrow.)

Merry Christmas

The temperature was -20 as we waited for the plane to arrive in Eek.

That was last Thursday.  The plane arrived on time, thankfully, for the flight to Bethel, Alaska.  I stayed the night in Bethel and then caught the morning flight to Anchorage and another plane to Seattle.  My youngest son was at the airport to pick me up for the hour and a half drive home.  It was a long trip, but thankfully, I arrived home safely late on Friday.

Connie and Caitlyn waiting for the plane in Eek.  Dirk in Background.

It is Christmas morning now and looking out the window beside me I see a few of the many evergreen trees near the house.  A light snow has fallen and the temperature is hovering around freezing, but blades of green grass still poke up through the snow.  It might be a good day for a warm fire.

I may be down in Washington State, but I still think of my other home up in Alaska.  Thinking of Christmas in Alaska led me to recall the Hallelujah Chorus video that the nearby village of Quinhagak made and uploaded just before Christmas of 2010.  It has gone viral with over a 1,555,000 views.  I hope you enjoy it.  Merry Christmas.